Gallery  April 26, 2019  Jordan Riefe

George Condo Tells Art & Object “What’s the Point?”

Courtesy Sprüth Magers

George Condo, Birdbrain, 2018

It’s an enormous monochromatic oil on linen composition featuring a jumble of figures, some consuming media, newspapers, TV screens, all crushed to near abstraction, suggesting a cacophony of sound. Painted by George Condo in 2018, its title, What’s the Point?, also happens to be the title of his new show at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles through June 1.

“For some reason believing in any one thing today, other than what I do as an artist and what you can do with art, just seems pointless,” Condo tells Art & Object about the show’s title during a sit down the morning after opening night, which brought out stars like Sylvester Stallone and filmmaker Gus Van Sant. “I thought, ‘What's the point of following the news or thinking that whatever you had yesterday is going to be relevant tomorrow?’ I internalized the idea of it being about the making of art.”

Courtesy Sprüth Magers

George Condo, What's the Point?, 2018

The new show is distinguished by the occasional use of monochrome but mainly by the scale of the works and the fatalistic yet hopeful tone of its title. Typical Condo hallmarks–expressionist undertones, cubist facial features recalling Picasso, and references to early masters–are present throughout. 

Birdbrain is a closeup portrait of a multi-hued cubist fowl against a black background, while The Chef is a mid-length portrait of a likewise cubist figure on scuffed white. Internal Network is yet another sprawling monochrome reminiscent of What’s the Point?, but with splashes of blue and red.

Courtesy Sprüth Magers

George Condo, The Chef, 2018

“I like the freedom of space in large-scale pieces. Some of them you fill every single centimeter of canvas with some sort of line or color. But there are some pretty open ones, like the triptych, Shorty and His Gang,” he says, singling out the show’s largest at over 19 feet long. “I just want to push painting for as far as it will go. I really enjoyed making them but it’s a hell of a lot of work.”

After two years of studying art history and music theory at UMASS Lowell, Condo moved to Boston and worked at a silkscreen shop by day while jamming with punk band, The Girls by night. He became friends with Jean Michel-Basquiat when the latter’s band, Gray, opened for The Girls in 1979 at Manhattan punk nexus Tier 3. 

Basquiat convinced Condo to move to New York where he took a menial position at MOMA until he got fired then hired to work in Andy Warhol’s silkscreen shop. His first solo show was at Monika Sprüth Gallery in 1984, a partnership that continues today. Over the years, friends and collaborators have included people like Keith Haring, author William Burroughs, poet Allen Ginsberg, and Kanye West.

Installation view, George Condo: What’s the Point?, at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles through June 1, including Shorty and His Gang​​​​​​​, left
Courtesy Sprüth Magers

Installation view, George Condo: What’s the Point?, at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles through June 1, including Shorty and His Gang, left

Installation view, George Condo: What’s the Point?, at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles through June 1
Courtesy Sprüth Magers

Installation view, George Condo: What’s the Point?, at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles through June 1

Installation view, George Condo: What’s the Point?, at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles through June 1
Courtesy Sprüth Magers

Installation view, George Condo: What’s the Point?, at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles through June 1

Mainly a New York artist, in the early 1980s Condo went with Basquiat to Los Angeles where the former had his first show in a club called The Rhythm Lounge. The accompanying music was provided by a new band making their live debut, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

“The early days I spent in Los Angeles were hysterical, having to get a job selling pens in some crazy pen sales office on Hollywood Boulevard to make enough money to get back to New York. And while I was doing that, Basquiat did that painting Hollywood Africans out here when Rammellzee and Toxic and all these graffiti guys came. He was preparing for his first show at Larry’s [Gagosian],” recalls Condo.

Basquiat was driving what Condo remembers as a big wide gangster car when they pulled over one night to pick up a young woman hitchhiking. They took her to her destination and said good-bye and never thought of it again until 20 years later when Condo attended the opening of a Damien Hirst show. “His ex-wife, Mia comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, do you remember in 1981 when you were in a giant car with Jean-Michel and you picked up a hitchhiker? That was me!’” laughs Condo. “It actually turned out the girl that was hitchhiking was Damien Hirst’s wife.”

These days, Condo paints like a man possessed. The ten new works in the show were all completed in the past year, and in May he’ll be taking a selection to Venice for the Biennale where the theme will be May You Live in Interesting Times

Courtesy Sprüth Magers

George Condo, The Outcast, 2019

“I strive to be a realist, to see things the way I see them as opposed to being representational. If you want to be representational, the only reality out there is the man-made artificial world that we live in. But this bled over into the news cycle and the confluence of artificial intelligence and fake news,” says Condo about the interesting times we live in. “The whole Trump world, and all politics, is essentially based on artificial realism, a constructed reality.”

Condo came up the concept of ‘artificial realism’ early in his career and it became a mainstay in his work through the decades. It was there during a bout with cancer in 2016 that disrupted his color palette in a show called Confronting the Void, with black and gray predominating in works like Self Portraits Facing Cancer 1.

“I’m trying to stay healthy. The reality is it's not easy. There’s not a lot to do when you stay healthy except paint. It’s not even black and white anymore, it’s all green and yellow,” he smiles and shakes his head. “After doing it for so long and wanting to continue painting until I’m dead, I love asking myself what’s the point of doing this.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and the Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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